Is Incredible Serena Williams at Her Peak with First Aussie-French Double?

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJune 6, 2015

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Just when we think we've seen it all from Serena Williams, the legend proves there are still some firsts left for her to strike off her list.

This fortnight at the French Open, despite battling the flu and a devastatingly difficult first-week schedule, Serena won her 20th Slam title by beating an impressively game Lucie Safarova 6-3, 6-7, 6-2 in the final.

Afterward, she said on NBC that this was undoubtedly the "most dramatic" Slam win of her entire career, but she was still having a hard time stopping to enjoy it.

"I'm already thinking about Wimbledon," she said, still on court, just moments after holding the trophy and giving her victory speech to the crowd in French.

It makes sense that Wimbledon is already on her mind. After all, she has now won the last three major titles, and for the first time in her career, she has won the Australian Open and the French Open back-to-back.

That means she has a shot to win her first Calendar Slam, and in the process, she could potentially capture her Steffi Graf-tying 22nd major title at the U.S. Open.

Corinne Dubreuil/Associated Press

It might sound absurd to be looking forward to September, to be counting Serena's future Slams before they hatch. But it's not, because it's possible that right now we are witnessing Serena play the best tennis of her entire career.

Yes, you read that right—at 33 years old, 17 years into her pro tennis career, 16 years after winning her first Grand Slam at the 1999 U.S. Open, 12 years after capturing the Career Grand Slam at the 2003 Australian Open, we might finally be seeing "Peak Serena."

When most people think of Serena at her best, they think back to 2002 and 2003, and rightly so. In 2002 she went 21-0 at the majors, winning the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in succession after skipping the Australian Open.

She won the Australian Open the following year, capturing what was called the Serena Slam, meaning she held all four major titles at one time. She lost in the French Open semifinals and then won Wimbledon in 2003, increasing her haul to five wins in six majors, something she has not done since.

And still, I think what we're seeing now is far more impressive.

David Vincent/Associated Press

First of all, that specific period of greatness began and ended with those five majors. Due to injury concerns and off-court distractions, Serena didn't win another major after 2003 Wimbledon until the 2005 Australian Open. In fact, from 2004 to 2007, Serena only won two majors in total, both in Melbourne.

Compare that with her tally since the start of the 2012 season, her first year on the WTA Tour as a 30-year-old. Since then she has won seven major titles, her most in any four-year stretch of her career—and there are still two Slams remaining on the calendar.

As Greg Garber of ESPN.com wrote, this is incredible considering the 30 threshold is when most greats start to lose steam, not gain it:

[For most,] the line of demarcation that separates Grand Slam winners from non-Grand Slam winners is the 29th birthday.

This is the tipping point when muscle memory becomes less muscle and more memory. When getting to the ball is no longer an unconscious act of twitching fibers but, rather, a journey to be contemplated. Experience, too, has a downside: Knowing too much can sometimes cause paralysis.

And yet, Serena has defied the odds and held off any substantial physical decay while increasing her focus and using her experience as a weapon, not a curse.  

That's led to this late-career surge, which has seen Serena maximize her potential. She has been the No. 1 player in the world for most of the past three years, finishing the year ranked No. 1 in 2013 and 2014. 

She won seven titles in 2012, 11 in 2013, seven in 2014 and already has three in 2015. That means she's won more than one-third of her 67 career titles in just the past three-and-a-half years.

The numbers simply don't lie: We are literally watching Serena Williams get better with age.

These days, Serena is dominating all of her rivals—in fact, you could say that on today's women's tour, she simply doesn't have a rival. While many like to say that's because of a lack of quality competition, I think it's all about Serena. After all, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and the recently retired Li Na are all phenomenal athletes and multiple-Slam champions, but on the biggest stages, Serena owns them. 

Like other all-time greats, she knows how to bring her best at the biggest moments. She's become more confident with herself, on and off the court, as she's gotten older, and that assuredness shows. She feels pressure, but she's not afraid of it anymore. She can control her power. She has an all-court game. There is a Plan B, and a Plan C, if her serve-big-and-strike-first plan isn't doing the job.

This, this is what true greatness is. It's sustained over a long period of time. It works harder when its back is against the wall. It changes with the times. It improves. It is never satisfied. That's what sets it apart from the impostors.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 06:  Runner up Lucie Safarova of Czech Republic and winner Serena Williams of the United States pose with their trophys after  the Women's Singles Final on day fourteen of the 2015 French Open at Roland Garros on June 6, 2015 in Paris
Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Watching this French Open, you could see how much Serena wanted this. (You could hear it too, through her colorful vocabulary.) When she lost that second set to Safarova, double-faulting away two breaks and then falling down an early break in the third, you could see her frustration erupt, and then you could see a wave of calm and focus wash over her. If you looked closely, you could watch her dial in and turn it up a notch in real time.

Serena used to have to be at her best to win a Slam, and her best was good enough to win many of them. But that's not the case anymore. Her best is still better than the rest, but when she's not in top form, she still finds ways to win. That is what Peak Serena is all about.

And thanks to Peak Serena, we get to continue to watch history be made in new ways.

This French Open proved that even old champions can have new tricks up their sleeves. Now we just get to sit back and watch what she comes up with next.

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